Earlier this week, the Killers were subject to boos and walkouts while onstage in Georgia after bringing a Russian man onstage to play drums with them. “We don’t know the etiquette of this land, but this guy’s a Russian,” frontman Brandon Flowers told the crowd. After the audience became visibly perturbed, Flowers doubled down: “You can’t recognise if someone’s your brother? He’s not your brother? We all separate on the borders of our countries? … Am I not your brother, being from America?”
The answer from the crowd seemed to be a unanimous “no” – a fair enough response, given that it was only 15 years ago that Russia invaded Georgia and still occupies around 20% of the territory (as well as significant portions of Ukraine). It hasn’t been the only time lately that a musician has put their foot in it with regards to cultural norms, either: the 1975 were banned from Malaysia last month after lead singer Matty Healy kissed his bandmate Ross MacDonald onstage in Kuala Lumpur. Homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia – and now the Good Vibes festival, which hosted the band, is demanding Healy and co pay damages to cover the costs of the event, which they were forced to cancel after the incident.
Moments of dissent such as these are nothing new – for decades, rock stars were practically expected to get on stage and make brazen political statements. And the same has been true for the past few years: in the wake of #MeToo, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, more and more artists were asked by fans and journalists about their personal politics, and were expected to use their platforms to rally against injustice and uplift underrepresented voices.
The kinds of artists who would have once been avowedly apolitical were suddenly expected to not just take a side, but to express a degree of fluency in leftwing politics and talking points. Stars who had previously toed the line politically, such as Taylor Swift, were faced with accusations of conservatism if they tried to maintain that carefully calculated centrism. Which has brought us to the present moment: a time in which it’s become de rigueur for artists to make political statements, but in which it’s considered shocking and beyond the pale if they’re making the wrong political statements.
The backlash experienced by Healy and Flowers seems to expose the fallacy inherent in the expectation that artists be political all the time. If they had said the “right” thing – if Flowers had, for example, condemned Russia and its people – it likely would have amounted to little more than lip service and would have been arguably just as ill-informed as what he did say. After all, the past seven-odd years of political statements from artists have done little other than satisfy the needs of fans wanting to assure themselves that their favourite performers are on the right side of history. Our era of artist-as-political-advocate has proved that they are mostly very good at reciting talking points with verve and enthusiasm. Flowers’ and Healy’s recent behaviour is proof that, for the most part, artists are not really adept at delivering trenchant, nuanced political messaging.
Saying that, the response to the pair’s political displays seems just shy of pearl-clutching. In the case of Healy, while I understand the vitriolic response from LGBTQ+ fans in Malaysia – who are rightfully fearful of a further government crackdown – it seems just as much a fault of the festival, which booked a band that had made similar pronouncements in the United Arab Emirates, another anti-LGBTQ+ state, and have since become even more flagrant with their onstage antics. (Confusingly, a large part of the critique of Healy’s display seems to be based around the idea that he wasn’t “respecting cultural norms”; given that TikTok, a hotbed of pro-LGBTQ+ activism beloved by young people is freely available in the country, this criticism seems more than a little wan to me.)
As for Flowers, it’s hard to expect an American rock star whose music is ostensibly beloved for its mass cultural-heartland sensibility to be an expert in eastern European geopolitics; it’s well within his rights to make a buffoonish statement about “loving each other” on stage, and it’s also well within his audience’s right to leave, which much of it reportedly did. You can forgive Healy and Flowers for assuming that their statements would have gone down more smoothly: both artists perform live shows whose inherent message seems to be that we all need to love each other. Both bands make earnest music that seeks some sense of common value in a nihilistic world; their statements, as ill-advised as they may have been, seemed like attempts to make explicit that artistic intent.
Part of the criticism of these artists also seems to be rooted in the idea that their focus should have been on playing for paying fans instead of having the gall to express their politics. This critique seems to speak to a larger issue with the way fans see musicians now: not as living, breathing artists with views that may stand in opposition to theirs, but as content machines – there to look pretty and play their favourite songs, like an onstage manifestation of their favourite Spotify playlist. Flowers and Healy weren’t, by any means, saying anything particularly revolutionary or high-minded. But they were doing what they thought was right in the moment – even if what they thought was right ended up scanning as clowny and insensitive. To me, that’s more interesting than getting on stage, shutting up and playing the hits.
Shaad D’Souza is a freelance culture journalist
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